The Recognitions by William Gaddis

the recognitions“–Reading it? Christ no, what do you think I am? I just been having trouble sleeping, so my analyst told me to get a book and count the letters, so I just went in and asked them for the thickest book in the place and they sold me this damned thing, he muttered looking at the book with intimate dislike. –I’m up to a hundred and thirty-six thousand three hundred and something and I haven’t even made fifty pages yet. Where’s your pants?”

This book is big. Simply noting it has 956 pages & tiny print does not do justice to the physical presence of the damn thing. It’s of a size you think twice about before packing in your bag for a hike. The size where you have to develop strategies of how you plan to read it on the bus when you can’t find a seat (answer: arm behind the spine with your fingers looped over the top, cradling it against your body like an infant). On top of this is the inaccessibility of the text itself — endless allusions to flemish painters, mithraic cults, obscure martyrs, not to mention the multitude of untranslated french, latin, spanish, german and more. 

The Recognitions in a nutshell: the final fate of the closest thing it has to a protagonist, Wyatt Gwyon, is entirely in latin.

The Recognitions is described as a book about art forgery. Nominally, it is, I guess. But if you asked me to describe it, which several people did after seeing me lug it around for a month, I’d tell you it was a book about vacuous art posers having amusing conversations in bars and parties in 1950s New York City, with occasional jaunts in Paris, Madrid, and Mount Lamentation, Connecticut. Also, the soulless zeitgeist and deadened spirit of our modern times and corrupt civilization.

Gaddis is among several other angry men of the 50s, declaring our society dead, slain by consumerism. You might call it phony, like everything from paintings to twenty dollar bills to novels to music that are made counterfeit over the course of this epic. The things is — all the terrible and occasionally correct things these guys were pissed off about happened. While we’ve eased up on some things Gaddis mentions like marketing drugs to children, we’re even more bombarded by constant marketing, consumer messaging, products products products. We’re living William Gaddis’ dread future. But, somehow, we survived. Art survived. Idyllic yearning for the past is now suspect. The whole thing feels passe. It’s almost self-congratulatory to be nodding your head along with Gaddis at this point. Like you just discovered Catcher in the Rye for the first time and found it found it shockingly new and illuminating.

Gaddis is especially angry though. He writes his characters to skewer them. We’re invited along to listen to them spout all these lines that the narrative voice pretty much loathes, follow them from one disappointment to the next, until Gaddis has virtually all of them try to kill themselves! This isn’t bleak, it’s caricature. I found myself wishing to grasp Gaddis by the shoulders, which I imagined slight and fleshless like Wyatt’s, and shake him while demanding “Then what is good, William??” Dedicated monastic life? Passionate flemish painters? Some sort of obscure and not entirely nailed down historic ideal that was probably bullshit in the first place?

The thing is, the reason I actually read this whole screed is that Gaddis manages to sell his hateful pessimism in an entertaining way. His dialogue is absolutely masterful — it’s a collection of unattributed lines separated by hyphens ‘–’. It strives to give the reader the impression they’re overhearing several different conversations at once and it works perfectly. Possibly the best application of unattributed dialogue I’ve ever read. He actually courts the vagaries of human speech — interruptions, repetition, filler sounds and words, the type of thing that generally isn’t readable — and it rolls right off the mental tongue.

This is all well and good, but what really drives this home is that Gaddis is funny. Even when he’s being an insufferable asshole, breaking the fourth wall by introducing a bestselling novelist just to mock him, he’s drawing laughs. Black humor abounds. He rivals Joseph Heller and David Foster Wallace in being able to sustain a single conversation for tens of pages at a time that is both deeply engrossing and hilarious. Indeed, the book is at its worst when it abandons the humor and tends towards solemnity, mercifully a rare occasion.

Still, I hoped for more. This guy supposedly influenced several of my favorite authors afterall. But Wallace and Heller and DeLillo and Pynchon are all fueled by something other than crotchety malice and doomsaying. I don’t think a story has to be hopeful. Not at all. But The Recognitions is just kicking you in the face with the message that society is corrupt and art is dead forever over and over and over. It’s gleeful almost. 

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

in cold bloodThe familiar, motiveless crime: A wholesome, small-town Kansas family is brutally murdered by individual shotgun blasts to the head.

Truman Capote’s account of the slain family, the reaction of their community of Holcombe Kansas, and the sojourn of murderers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, as they effortlessly flee the law and then foolishly deliver themselves unto it, is a gripping, classic work. First and most obvious because we, as a society, are entranced by true crime tales, especially those as masterfully written as In Cold Blood. We simultaneously have a deep interest in moral justice as well a fascination with violent criminals.

But more important and Capote’s far greater contribution: In Cold Blood does not limit its cast to ‘helpless victims’ and ‘evil ne’er-do-wells’. The four Clutters — Mother, Father, Son, Daughter are characterized fully, though clearly somewhat fictitiously as Capote reveals thoughts of theirs he couldn’t possibly know. By digging deep into the last day of their lives he shows how abrupt it all can can end. Not a dramatic build up like a movie, but day to day chores and concerns, errands to be run and college plans to be made, and then nothing.

Many more words are spent on Dick and Perry, the cold blooded killers themselves. They’re the protagonists of this narrative, really. It’s difficult to accept both the scope of their crime and the persons described, who the majority of the time act and think like normal-ish people. Perry is concerned with improving his vocabulary and likes to play the guitar. Dick is legitimately worried what his mother will think of him even as he screws her over. Even law enforcement agents who dedicated their lives to catching them for months couldn’t work up much animosity when they finally nabbed them.  

While the voice of the narrator does not promote any particular stance, it’s difficult to read In Cold Blood as anything but an indictment of the death penalty. Many of the court processes are farcical — a dubious Kansas law of the time only allowed psychiatric professionals to answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to the single question of ‘Does this defendant know the legal difference between right and wrong?’ instead of the myriad and complicated answers that mental health questions demand. As a result, Dick and Perry share death row with at least one severely mentally ill inmate (later executed) who cannot truly separate the real world from his own imagination. Moreover, Kansas’ death penalty at the time was hanging by the neck, which is unbelievably barbaric. Dick Hickock takes 19 minutes to die while the bystanders convince each other he felt nothing beyond the initial drop.

But it’s far more nuanced than ‘Hanging = bad’. For one, it doesn’t take much more than to take a look at the real Clutter family…

ClutterFamily

…and read the harrowing tale of the deaths, tortured, filled with terror as their loved ones were executed one by one, and think “Yeah, okay, Perry and Dick probably should not have been hanged, but honestly who gives a shit?”

The novel makes no bones about it: While it took a confluence of factors bringing both men together to lead to murder, it was far from unlikely and if they instead went to prison for 20 years and got out on parole, it would also be far from unlikely that either man, but especially Perry, would cause major harm again. Perry, a soft spoken and intelligent man, was seriously abused as a child. We’re talking horrendous, absent or fighting parents, nuns at school nearly drowning him by holding him under iced bath water, multiple siblings killing themselves. Every position of authority in his life not only failed him but actively damaged him. He goes on to compliment Mr. Clutter as a ‘nice gentleman’ right up until he slits his throat, the reasoning of which Perry himself does not entirely comprehend. When questioned “Does severe childhood trauma lead to unknowing bursts of extreme violence?”, mental health professionals of the time emphatically replied, yes.

Dick, even harder to feel any empathy for, being an abrasive pedophile, suffered a brain injury in a car accident many years earlier. His family described him as a “different boy” afterwards. It goes without saying his brain injury went unexamined. This is hardly a passing problem either, since our favorite national sport is scarring its players’ brains on the regular, and violence as result of brain trauma is something we need to address very soon. Should already be addressing much better than we are.

But the why’s do not help answer the question of what should have been done with the two of them. The cop-out answer is that we, as a society, need to prevent them from happening in the first place. Certainly Perry at least could have been prevented. It doesn’t seem like all that much has changed in fifty years, barring perhaps the scale of violence. Mass shootings instead. We haven’t adapted to help soothe abuse ravaged minds or very specific kinds of mental illness. And again, even then, what to do when it does happen? Is there a solution beyond death or life imprisonment (in prison or a hospital) for the perpetrators? Can violently askew brains be healed?

Dark Souls III

dark souls 3

Once more unto the breach. For the third time in five years, the first flame is dying; nearly dead. When it dies, an age of Dark will commence and light will become no more. Granted, the world is a twisted, corpse-littered mess and it’s a dubious notion that it’s worth saving in the first place, but here you are, another mute undead warrior stumbling on to the scene to make things right (or worse).

The Dark Souls series, including the main trilogy and its predecessor Demon’s Souls and spinoff Bloodborne are some of my favorite games, ever. The uncompromising vision, the gorgeous rendering of hellish medieval ruin, the drive to try something new. In an industry that was moving more and more towards accessibility as the ultimate goal, Dark Souls popularized a philosophy already apparent and contentious in literature: Demanding effort and attention from the reader/player can lead to a finer, more rewarding experience. Dismissing the axiom that entertainment need be ‘easy’ is Dark Souls gift to posterity.

The bedrock of Dark Souls is that by thrusting the player into a dangerous world that does not hold their hand or explain much at all, both the oppressive atmosphere of the gameworld is heightened and the high the player feels after finally overcoming a difficult challenge is far more satisfying than it would be otherwise. And this practice is proven true, again and again. I can say this from experience, when after narrowly taking down The Nameless King, one of the harder bosses, I was in a shaky but exultant state indeed.

What this does for the narrative is key too: I rescued a smooth talking but frankly creepy fellow and brought him back to my home pad. He then offered to ‘unlock my true power’ and give me a free level up. In other games, I would just blindly accept the reward. But this is Dark Souls, which has taught me to be suspicious of anything free, especially from the mouths of shady individuals. This is the series that, in past games, allowed me to bring back friendlies to my base who later murdered everyone else there. The narrative and its choices are enhanced by the gameplay. The risk.

(I took the offer anyway; naturally, nothing comes without a price)

We’re five games deep now. Elements of the series have filtered down into other games — from cosmetics like bonfires being used as checkpoints to feature adoption like being able to leave templated messages to other players to a general philosophy that fine tuned difficulty is an admirable design philosophy. Can Dark Souls maintain its innovation? It doesn’t try. Rather than re-invent the wheel, DS3 is satisfied with simply doing what it already does very well. Something none of its imitators have ever really approached. The tightness of the core systems, the haunting strangeness of its world. It basically gives a clinic on level design with the wonderful Undead Settlement, a crumbling shantytown that constantly intertwines and twists back on itself, while maintaining the fiction of being a real place where people once lived.

While I thoroughly enjoyed my time playing the game, if not as quite so much as Bloodborne*, there were times like I felt like I was going through the motions. There’s only so many times you can roll-dodge the wide swing of an animate suit of armor’s greatsword, or throw the same fireball or get stabbed to death by another cackling skeleton. DS3 seems to acknowledge that its players could have played up to four separate but similar games by this point, so everything seems to move much faster and hit much harder. We’re still pros by this point, though. It would be laughable to say the game wasn’t difficult, but it’s a controlled, familiar difficult that doesn’t challenge me for long anymore. We’ve seen the decaying land of Lothric/Drangleic/Lordran many times by this point, and while it’s still haunting and enchanting, it’s no longer fresh. The game acknowledges this by doubling back to previous titles — locations and familiar faces abound. 

This is the finale. The victory lap. Visionary Director Hidetaka Miyazaki has called this his final Dark Souls game. Another impressive feat is to quit when the time is right and not when the money runs out. I cannot wait to see where he will take us next. 


*I’m not going to say much about Bloodbourne because I already wrote plenty on it here; but I will say it remains the pinnacle of the series for me. The highly focused trick weapons and speedy gameplay ultimately trumped the greater armament diversity of Dark Souls and I loved the focused Victorian/Lovecraftian story. That said, there’s still expansion packs lurking out there in the future for DS3

 

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

“Good prose is like a window pane.”

– George Orwell

homageThe above quote is a framed print on my wall. Orwell proves it fully with Homage to Catalonia, a personal account of his time fighting in the Spanish Civil War. It’s a window into a very particular point in time, a baleful precursor to World War II. It went far beyond my previous understanding of the conflict, which in American schooling boils down to Franco = Bad.

The chapters of the book follow two different paths. The first is Orwell’s direct experiences on the front and later in the street fighting in Barcelona. This is largely a tale of privation. Both sides of the war were drastically undersupplied. No guns, no bread, no tools, and eventually no tobacco. Plenty of lice. It’s ironic that my mid-century version of the book has a bloodied bayonet on the cover because the Republican forces did not even have those. Indeed, their guns were 30-40 years old, often from the previous century, and as like to lock or blow up in their wielder’s face as shoot anything. Furthermore, the fronts were so far apart and in such hostile terrain, there was very little fighting at all for much of Orwell’s tenure. Endless boredom and sleep deprivation instead.  

It’s a vivid retelling. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve been told that trench warfare was abysmal and some of the very worst humanity has inflicted on its own. To hear it in Orwell’s crisp prose is to be re-acclimated with just how miserable the whole experience was. Worse, how absurd and pointless. Orwell barely sees any action, certaintly not anything that can be claimed a military victory, but plenty of good men are wounded or die and George gets a bullet through his throat for good measure.

The alternate chapters are Orwell’s summary of the politics of the war, from his position a few months after he left. I just learned in newer copies of the book these are actually appendices placed at the end, which is a grave injustice if you ask me. The war and its politics must be intertwined. Orwell joined the war under a specific party, the P.O.U.M., without giving it a second thought. There to fight fascism, he assumed a unity amongst the opposing republican parties. But an ominous note early on bodes ill when he asks someone about a fellow acronym-based group and is told “they’re the socialists”, to which Orwell replies “Aren’t we all socialists?” 

Turns out there’s some majorly important distinctions between the political groups of the republic. There’s socialists of various kinds, communists, and anarchists, which should share many of the same tenets, but Orwell goes at length to show that this version of communism is based entirely on the military interests of Russia (the only party supplying the government with guns) and not much on ideology. This becomes essential later, when the communist-backed government clashes with the P.O.U.M. while George is on leave in Barcelona and the city devolves into street fighting. The end game is complete disillusionment with the war as he watches all his friends thrown in jail and escapes to France by the skin of his teeth. He has a particular hate for the misleading foreign journalism abroad, and the rampant censorship and harmful propaganda within Spain. You can almost see 1984 being written.

Something of a side note that I found fascinating was the political anarchism that briefly gripped Spain. Orwell writes that capitalist hierarchy was eliminated in Catalonia. In the militia, officers pulled the same pay as raw recruits and enjoyed the same social status; if a grunt didn’t like the order his ‘superior’ gave him, he had the right to question it. Land ownership was abolished and food freely distributed. It’s easy to think of political anarchism as nice in theory but totally impractical and before he engaged with it, Orwell thought the same. It’s fun and a little bittersweet to ponder what might have happened in Spain had the anarchists prevailed.

George Orwell is from a different era. It’s easy to forget. His writing, especially 1984 and Animal Farm, are still widely read and relevant today. Big Brother is a concept rooted in international parlance. I write this because his mentality on joining the war in the first place is thus: he thought it was the only decent thing to do. To go to Spain and fight fascism by killing some fascists. To modern eyes, the idealism and sense of duty present is almost shocking. He infuses the book with a certain violent moral force. Amidst the war is an appraisal of human decency, which through individual interactions he maintains a high opinion of, regardless of the widespread hate and oppression swirling around.

Happy Birthday, Scrying Orb

No grandiose goal setting this year, just a happy year number 3. Hooray, books! Hooray, book reviews!

And a few housekeeping activities:

– I updated the about page again; it was a little stuffy.

– I replaced my profile picture with a photo from when I officiated my sister’s wedding. The former one was a few years and a city away and distractingly beardless.

The Dirty Dust by Máirtín Ó Cadhain

dirtydustDon’t know if I am in the Pound grave, or the Fifteen Shilling grave? Fuck them anyway if they plonked me in the Ten Shilling plot after all the warnings I gave them. The morning I died I calls Patrick in from the kitchen, “I’m begging you Patrick, I’m begging you, put me in the Pound grave, the Pound grave! I know some of us are buried in the Ten Shilling grave, but all the same…”

— first paragraph of the novel and introduction to our protagonist, Catriona Paudeen, newly interred in the cemetery clay.

You see, all the characters in The Dirty Dust are dead. And they will not shut up about it. All the petty squabbles, the timeless gossip, matters of inheritance and land ownership, continue underground. Indeed, Catriona as a corpse, much like in life, is almost entirely motivated by a feud with her hated sister, Nell. Her greatest wish is that no one be buried in the cemetery before her.

The novel is entirely dialogue. Unattributed dialogue. You get the hang of who is speaking by the manner in which they speak. Some are really obvious like the guy who is always bitching about his faulty heart or the guy always cursing Billy the Postman (who married his wife shortly after his death) or the french guy or the guy who starts every sentence with “Bloody tear and ‘ounds, Catriona!”, but sometimes it’s much less clear, often on purpose. Just a cacophony of voices of the dead. On top of that, some characters don’t even get names, but are referred to by their relationship to others — Nora Johnny’s daughter or Tom’s old one, for instance. There’s also two different Tom’s (Redser Tom and Fireside Tom) and Tim Top ‘O the Road. A motley crew. It achieves the desired effect of making you, the reader, feel like you’re in a crowded pub catching pieces of conversation without ever having the full context.

Part of the mystique of The Dirty Dust is that it was written in 40s, in irish, and only just now translated into english, partially due to the mistaken notion that O Cadhain, an ardent IRA supporter, never wished it to be translated. There’s much praise on the cover that it’s the greatest novel ever written in irish. The praise goes further into grandiose ultimate truth territory by declaring that the novel reveals some axiomatic elements of human nature. I guess there’s something to it. By reading some humans gossip, you can extrapolate that, yes, all humans gossip. Feels kind of banal and useless though.

Instead, the real triumph of this novel is how perfectly O Cadhain wrote dialogue that sounds like how people speak. This is no easy feat. The repetition, missayings, inconsistencies, and contradictions of human speech cannot be directly transcribed and remain enjoyable (not to mention sensical) to read. So it’s a real skill to be able to achieve that effect anyway. Behold, an excerpt, at random:

– What kind of cut or shape of woman was she?

– A long tall sally. Blondy hair dripping down her back.

– Earrings?

– Of course.

– Dark eyes?

– I haven’t a clue what kind of eyes she had. I wasn’t thinking about them…

– A broad bright grin?

– She was gawping away at the Master all right. But she wasn’t gawping at me…

– Did you hear where she hangs out?

– No I didn’t. But she’s working at Barrie’s Bookies, if there’s such a joint. The Derry Lough Master and the Priest’s sister are getting married next month. They say he’ll get a new school.

– The one with the pants?

– The very one.

– Isn’t that weird she’d marry him?

– Why so? Isn’t he a fine looking specimen, and he doesn’t touch a drop.

– But all the same. It’s not every man would want to marry a woman who wears trousers. They’d be a bit more pernickety than other women…

– Ah, cop on and get an ounce of sense! My own son is married to a French one in England and you wouldn’t have the least clue on God’s earth what she was gabbling on about no more than the gobshite buried over here. Shouldn’t she be even more pernickety than any one that wears a pair of pants…

There’s no narrative arc. The book could have gone on another three hundred pages. Or three thousand. Or it could have ended two hundred sooner. A bunch of corpses nattering, endlessly, ad infinitum. This is why I’m going to categorize The Dirty Dust as something interesting to read, something I don’t regret reading. But, while sometimes funny or engaging, it wasn’t all that enjoyable. Not one of those books I just can’t wait to dive back into, but one of those books that left an impression somewhere; I can still hear the voices blathering on down below in the dirty dust.

Nostalgia and Ducktales

Nostalgia is a funny thing. It used to connote a pleasant kind of yearning for the past. Maybe a little bittersweet but an ultimately positive feeling. But lately we’ve become skeptical of it. Some call it a barrier to innovation. Corporations cashing in on thirty-somethings who have families now and maybe some wealth. Just throw something in front of them that they remember fondly from their childhood and they’ll munch it right up. Blame endless sequels or our infinite obsession with superheroes on this. Watch your peers rapidly become how you remember your parents, crotchetly declaring that things used to be better.

I attributed these feelings to an nameless, amorphous critic here, but I share them in part. I don’t mind a good remake or rehash, but I want to see new things more. I’ve vowed I won’t end up one of those old guys afraid of new things and unable to adapt to new technology or music or yes, video games.

Which brings us to Ducktales Remastered, a remake of a 1989 NES game. Let’s be real here: Ducktales is not relevant anymore. It does not interest modern kids, all of whom are much too young to remember the heyday of early 90s Disney cartoons and video games. Ducktales is a kids game aimed at adults, even going so far as to use the cartoon’s original voice actors, which is kind of an outstanding feat. Scrooge and co. all sound much older and gravellier, but still nail their signature voices. It’s worthy to note that ‘kid’s game’ also meant something entirely different, gameplay-wise, in the NES days. While Remastered added an easy mode with infinite lives/checkpoints, it’s still dramatically more difficult than most currently produced, age-accessible games.

ducktales

Before we circle back to nostalgia, let’s ask: does a 1989 game hold up in 2016?

Sort of.

The innovation of Ducktales, a platformer like many others following the Super Mario or Megaman greats, was that Scrooge McDuck can use his cane as a pogo stick. Indeed, that’s how you navigate the world. Always be pogo’ing. It’s a cool mechanic. Remastered also obviously updated the graphics. The characters and enemies are sharply done, and look like they hopped right out of the cartoon, though the backgrounds and items are quite muddy and unremarkable. The thing is: other than Scrooge’s unique method of movement, the levels are very simple and forgettable. Enemies don’t do much. The bosses have simple patterns and take too many hits to kill. Add it all up and it’s a fun diversion but not timeless like say, Super Mario Bros 3 or Mega Man 2. Nor does it to compare well to modern re-envisioning like Shovel Knight. It’s appeal is steeped in nostalgia.

The etymology of nostalgia is the Greek nostos, meaning ‘homecoming’, and algos, meaning ‘pain, grief, distress’. When originally used in the 19th century, it was something very dire indeed. Associated with a fictional (& fatal) Swiss disease or the terrible homesickness felt by African slaves. The modern interpretation is far more tame than its origins.

Ducktales made me feel some of the most acute nostalgia of my adult life. I played it at 4-6 years old; naturally amidst some major developmental times. There was a point, here in 2016, where I selected the Moon level and the music played and it was so distantly familiar,I felt a piercing jolt to my upper spine and literally got the chills, so deeply did it connect me to myself, twenty five years removed. Not the nostalgia of watching the next dumb superhero movie or listening to the same old radio station you listened to in your teens, playing the same old music. But the intense, greek version. It wasn’t like I was a slave yearning for a home I was ripped from. Nor do I want to be five years old again by any means. It wasn’t painful. Yet. The combination of intense connection or loss to/of a time gone by combined with that homey feel cannot but remind you of your own mortality. To connect with the past and see yourself now is also to know some day you won’t be experiencing anything at all.

Girl with Curious Hair by David Foster Wallace

girlwithcurioushairThis is… *sniff*… the final published work by David Foster Wallace that I had not yet read.*

Published in 1989, many years before Infinite Jest, Consider the Lobster, or Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, this collection features a younger DFW writing about younger people in a voice he hasn’t totally solidified or claimed yet. As a result, it’s more diverse, less experimental with some of the clearest and only examples of stories he wrote that were pure narrative fiction, free of literary affectation (mostly) or authorial asides. A complete absence of footnotes, even.

A list, not comprehensive:

John Billy

Should be a movie. I can see it. Plan the camera angles. Especially the buzzards. Plenty of buzzards in this one.

John Billy starts off with the first person narrator, John Billy, telling a story to an addled tornado-watcher in an Oklahoma bar about the larger-than-life characters of town. At first I thought DFW wrote this simply to make fun of southern stereotypes. But this attitude quickly fell away, so completely engrossed as I was in the small-town politics slash olympian feats of the herculean Chuck Nunn Jr., the blackly villainous T. Rex Minogue, and the cast surrounding them. The southern backdrop is there as a stage for American myth, not just humor.

It’s a weird story to come from DFW. All about myth, our worship of the land and its composite dust. See the cosmos through the plotted field. Not his usual topics of interest. Some might complain when the ending dives into metaphysical silliness and doesn’t entirely wrap up, when what is real and what is not are tossed into a blender, but I found it a perfectly apt conclusion to what the story set up.

 

Girl with Curious Hair

This story is hilarious. It gets across the point of American Psycho (and precedes it) in a fraction of the words. A wealthy member of the Young Republicans Group hangs out / is fellated by his nihilistic punk rock buddies, and he’s just so happy. Black humor at its finest.

 

Lyndon

Lyndon. Like LBJ, 36th president of the United States. One of the many unlikely subjects found in these stories. We see Lyndon through the eyes of his fictional mail boy, and later close confidante, David Boyd.

This is a story about love. And duty. LBJ is a workaholic obsessed with doing the right thing by the country, while also being a kind irritable blowhard assured that he’s the only one that’s ever right. The love part is the relationship between Boyd and the president. Not sexual or romantic love, as LBJ is straight and loves his wife and Boyd is gay and maybe doesn’t love his partners, but tries. There’s a bond between them. Based on a shared sense of duty, work? LBJ as a slide in father-figure, the ultimate patriarchal/presidential role? 

Most striking of all is just how believable this all this. Following the story’s close, I immediately went to Google to check if David Boyd existed. He did not. Which is impressive. Also not the only fictional character in this collection with the same first name as the author…

 

Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way

I started this story and instantly knew it would be the weakest one. It was borderline insufferable. DFW getting too cute.  Three disaffected and unlikeable graduate students embark on a plane and cab journey to reunite with several thousand people for the reunion of Every Single Person Who Has Appeared In a McDonalds Commercial, Ever. There’s lots of grandiose statements on what’s wrong with our generation, coupled with a whole bunch of other musings on what’s wrong with our writing programs and contemporary american literature in general. It’s smug and sort of clever; the oppressive flavor of clever that makes you want to vacate the room.

I flipped forward a few pages to see if it ended soon, a common practice of mine. I noted the title still on the top right of the page and frowned, but returned to my place. A dozen pages later I did the same thing. It didn’t seem to end. I rapidly flipped through fingerfulls of pages looking for the end, only to realize with a sinking feeling that it was the entire rest of the book. It’s like 200 pages, nearly a novel in its own right. Half the collection! I thought this book was an instant favorite and now I had to come to terms with the gross, abominable growth attached to its backside.

A funny thing happened about halfway through, though. My boredom and distaste with the story began to metastasize into something else entirely. When I realized the commute of the three students, plus Ronald McDonald and his dad/creator, was never going to end. That they would swirl in banal misfortune and their own solipsistic misery forever, I found myself somehow soothed. It still wasn’t very good, but its misery and repetition became comfortable

 

*Exception being that book he wrote about math. Skipping that one. I think.

Salt and Sanctuary

salt3

While hired on as a guard to transport a princess across the sea and broker peace-via-marriage between two endlessly warring kingdoms, your ship is hijacked by bandits and tentacled sea monsters (alas) and you’re hurled into the sea. Naturally, you wash up on a mysterious island, unstuck in time, littered with all manner of beasts and creeping haunts and apocrypha.

Salt and Sanctuary is a game that is actively trying to be a 2D version of Dark Souls.

To say that it was merely inspired by Dark Souls or that it is a homage does not do justice to what is actually going on here. It’s a gloomy, abstract game-world that is difficult and requires patience and trial and error to traverse. You pick from an analogue of Dark Souls type classes, right down to the ill-equipped deprived. You collect salt/souls to level up and lose them at death and have one chance to return and reclaim them. At it’s most egregious, and the only point where I found it just too much, you journey to the bottom of the world and see many other world trees in the distance, a nearly 1:1 pasting of one of Dark Souls most iconic areas.

It’s effective. More love-letter than cash-in. And of course, morphing a 3d game into two dimensions changes the gameplay completely. Platforming plays a much bigger role; being knocked off platforms was easily my highest cause of death. A jump button is huge — I could play a slow-rolling, fat armored knight type character because being able to jump (and later dash) solved nearly any mobility woe. As a result, along with some easily exploitable systems and easy bosses, it’s much easier than Dark Souls. It does maintain the heavy feel of combat, and basic enemies can still kill you quickly if you’re not quick and alert.

The places where it deviates from the formula are hit-and-miss. For example, the sanctuary system replaces the bonfire checkpoints; A sanctuary is a sacred area dedicated to one of the various creeds of the island. You pick your character’s religion (or absence of one) at the start and find several others along the way. This allows you to locate defunct sanctuaries and spruce them up and populate them with various merchants — blacksmith, cleric, guide, etc — to make the place more homey and give you access to various tools. When you find opposing creeds’ sanctuaries, you can still perform basic functions like saving your progress and leveling up, but little else. By crushing a ‘bloodstained page’, you can declare (holy) war on the heretic sanctuary and fight its adherents; if you win, the sanctuary now belongs to your creed. It’s cool and a more atmospheric and robust system than a mere checkpoint, but it would have been nice to take it a little further. There’s not much point to converting other creeds and the faction system just requires tedious farming of enemies to level up.

Likewise, the art, sound and animation is usually pretty good, with caveats. I like good 2d art and S&S is mostly there. The environments are beautiful in a cloudy washed-out way, the art merges with the sparse storyline perfectly and it captures the visual excitement an RPG should have at equipping your character with a new piece of gear. On the other hand, sometimes it’s a little too murky and it can be hard to discern enemies and their attacks. And what is up with those faces?

The game’s biggest failing is they clearly ran out of time by the end of the game. Environments go from complex, many-leveled labyrinths with several exits and entrances and shortcuts to boss corridors without much else in them. Possibly worse is that the number-tuning of the game gets thrown out the window. The last bosses all collapse in a few hits, leading to a bizarre situation where the last boss is much easier than the first one (or second or third or etc). It would benefit greatly from a rebalancing patch, and it does leave a poor impression indeed when you feel like you’re playing a legitimately great game that turns into a merely average one for the final twenty percent.

That said, it was the kind of impressive, joyful discovery that instantly made me a fan of the indie studio, Ska Studios, who created it. 

 

The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa

war of the end of the worldWhy do you put down a book before you finish it?

Okay, there’s some really obvious answers here. Number one, it’s bad. Number two, the writing is terrible. Number three, you’ve read this same story before, and better. Number four, the writer is an asshole. And so on.

I didn’t finish The War of the End of the World. Two hundred pages in, it was pretty good, the writing was solid if not scintillating, I hadn’t read precisely the same story before and as far as I know, Vargas Llosa wasn’t an asshole. In fact, I’m kind of struggling with why exactly I put the damn thing down.

Let’s read the back-of-the-book blurb:

In the remote Brazilian backlands was Canudos– home to all the damned of the earth, to prostitutes, freaks, bandits, beggars, and the most wretched of the poor. And it was paradise, a Utopian state led by an apocalyptic prophet, a place without hunger, money, property, taxes, or marriage. And so in 1897, the Brazilian government decreed it must be destroyed.

Compelling. A good ‘ole, country-spanning, apocalyptic epic. tWotEotW details each of the major figures of Canudos — from ex-slaves to hermits to reformed bandits to the physically handicapped. Their origin story is revealed and how they came to seek the Prophet and Canudos is told. Some are very engaging. Meanwhile, there are perspectives from the Brazilian government on the vigilante abomination that’s growing in the hinterlands. Lastly, many chapters are dedicated to Galileo Gall, a rationalist-scotsman-revolutionary obsessed with violent revolution, who eventually makes his way to Canudos.

Like many great latin american works, society sucks. The rich fleece the poor. Crime pays. Hunger is hard enough to sate, forget happiness. When fleeing from the oppression of political systems, the disenfranchised instead end up in the hands of religion, with harmful superstitions and an assurance that the world will end, shortly. 

Really, if we’re going to get down to it, and be honest with myself: the reason I didn’t finish it is that this book is long. Dense. It’s ‘only’ 700 pages, but has the smallest margins I’ve ever seen and tiny text, so it’s likely more than 1000+ in regular pages. I don’t mind long books — I typically relish them. But the coup de gras here was that I felt like I got the whole point of the book in the first 100 pages. The same structure seemed to repeat ad infinitum. There was no more learning to be had. I had an epiphinal reaction that I can only read X books in my life, and that X was going to be lower one or two books if I stuck it out and finished The War of the End of the World.

So I put it down.